Gravity is headed to a massive opening and it’s an early contender for Oscars. But could two astronauts actually be stranded in space, with no help and cut off from all communication? Scarily, the answer is yes.
Death By Dust
The entire plot of the movie is triggered by space debris. A shower of debris from a satellite smashes into a shuttle, destroying it and cutting the astronauts off from its support systems. And, yeah, that can happen. In fact, on a tiny scale, it happens all the time.
There’s thousands, possibly millions, of pieces of space crud smaller than a centimeter in Earth’s orbit. So what, right? Well, without air resistance or friction to slow them down, these little pieces of stuff basically serve as a suborbital sandblaster, destroying valuable components and constantly wearing away at the surfaces of space stations, which isn’t surprising as this stuff is moving at eleven miles a second.
And that’s what a tiny bit can do; as you might imagine, as thing scale up the damage gets more severe, to the point where NASA has to actively track anything bigger than five centimeters. And worse, unless it somehow falls into the atmosphere, or experiences a short sharp stop, none of this stuff goes away: The International Space Station had to dodge debris from two satellites slamming together in 2011…with the accident between the satellites happening in 2009.
Similarly, if the accident we see in the trailer actually happened, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that communications satellites would be destroyed, cutting our adrift astronauts away from any communication. That said, though, they wouldn’t be cut off; astronauts use basic radio to communicate, and anybody can communicate with astronauts if they’ve got the right equipment. So while they might lose contact with ground control, as long as their radios are on they’ll be able to reach somebody. Of course, they have bigger problems to deal with.
The good news is that astronauts set adrift have several hours worth of oxygen onboard in their suits. The bad news is that they’re going to die well before their oxygen runs out.
Most astronauts use a pressure suit, and that pressure suit has a PLSS, a device that reabsorbs water vapor and helps convert carbon dioxide back into oxygen. The only problem is, the carbon dioxide will inevitably accumulate, pushing out the oxygen. And then, well, let’s just say a long, slow, oxygen starved death is an even uglier way to die than it sounds, and leave it at that.
What it comes down to is that Gravity is essentially the absolute worst-case scenario for astronauts, where everything that can go wrong does. The good news is that the odds of this are rather low in real-life… but they’re likely going to make for one hell of a movie.